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Casting in the Commonwealth

In Virginia, getting into fishing has its challenges before rewards.

It’s an 80-page booklet, about the size of a coupon magazine found in the foyer of a supermarket or a TV listings guide found in the Sunday newspaper. The cover photo features a family of five in a small motor boat, enjoying a perfect afternoon on a deep blue body of water; inside the pages of "Freshwater Fishing in Virginia" are all the information, rules and regulations a prospective angler needs to know in order to join them.

Julia Dixon, media relations coordinator for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said the manual is given to anyone who purchases a license to fish in state waters. She said those new to the sport quickly discover there’s a lot to learn before they cast their lines for the first time.

"You have to fish in areas where you’re not trespassing. You have to know about your creel limit — how many fish do you have in your possession? So you’re not over-fishing the area," she said. "All of this is part of our fisheries management. We stock millions of fish in the waters of Virginia, and many people catch them, cook them and eat them. But we also have a lot of native species, too, that we’re trying to manage and protect."

It’s a delicate balance been conservation and recreation for Department of Game and Inland Fisheries officials like Chris Dunnavant, Angling Education Coordinator. He said there’s a very good reason for state-wide "creel limits," which for example prohibit fishermen from pulling more than 20 catfish of a certain type from local waters per day.

"Our fishery biologists have set regulations in these bodies of water to improve the fishing," he said. "The fishing regulation booklet and the Web are very hopeful for people who want to follow and obey the laws."

But the first step in that education process begins with a license.

THERE ARE FOUR different ways to purchase a fishing license in Virginia, including online and at hundreds of licensing agents around the state. People are eligible for a resident freshwater license if they’ve been a resident of Virginia for six consecutive months prior to application; legal voters in Virginia; students attending Virginia schools; and other more limited exceptions.

Residents under 16 years of age do not require a license to fish, but nearly everyone else 16 or older does. In addition, specific stamps are necessary depending on where one is fishing and what is being caught.

According to Dixon, freshwater fishing licenses are $18, which includes a $1 "bait shop" agent fee for the establishment that sells the license. There is also a more limited license that’s good for five consecutive days; that license costs $11, which includes a $1 agent fee.

She said carrying a signed license is required, and that state game wardens will be watching.

"Our game wardens are undergoing a name change to being called the ‘conservation police,’" said Dixon, of the agency whose name will change effective July 1. "They patrol the waters of Virginia. They check licenses, and they also have responsibilities for enforcing wildlife and boating laws. They’ll patrol these fishing areas and ask to check these licenses."

Mike Horner, park manager for Franklin Park in Purcellville, said that parents without a license can help their children fish but that their help can’t crossover into actually participating in the sport themselves. "If the game warden watches you cast your rod 20 times, guess what? You’re fishing," he said.

Dixon said there are several exceptions to needing a license to fish in Virginia, and that the "Freshwater Fishing in Virginia" guide and the state’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Web site www.dgif.virginia.gov both list them.

Dunnavant said one exception is on saltwater charter boats, which are a great way for beginner fishermen to get into the sport. "That captain has the license. If you’re talking about saltwater, that captain has a license for the whole boat. For freshwater, you still have to have a license," he said. "For someone that’s new to fishing, that’s a great way to start: Hire a guy, go out on a charter boat and get a really great insight for getting started. Typically they supply all the tackles and the lure and the bait."

BOTH THE state’s fishing guide and Web site provide detailed information about what can be caught in Virginia and where to catch it. From the crappies of Burke Lake to the white catfish in the Potomac, the department offers regulations for size and amount, as well as tips for how to catch them.

"We’re trying to promote good fishing. You want someone who catches an undersized fish to throw it back so it can continue to grow," said Dixon.

Dunnavant said sometimes it’s just as important to know how to release them.

"Unhook it and toss it back as quickly as possible," he said. "There’s no really inhumane way vs. humane way, in a sense. It’s good to have a pair of needle-nosed pliers handy to unhook it, and to handle the fish as little as possible before throwing it back. The fish has a protective slime coat, so you want to touch it around the mouth."

There are some methods for catching fish that are discourage or prohibited. When it comes to trout in the western part of the state, for example, those fishing can’t "snag" a fish. "Instead of fish biting your lure or your bait, you just ‘snag’ it. That’s not a very sporting way of going about things," said Dunnavant.

"When you get a permit, it’s literally what you’re permitted to do," said Dixon. "You can buy different permits for using nets and things like that, but you can’t assume that if you have a license you’re free to do whatever and fish whatever."

You also can’t assume that every locality shares the same rules and regulations. "In general, these rules are state-wide, but you have to be mindful of any local ordinances. Generally, the game department has oversight," said Dunnavant. For example, there’s a lake in Chesapeake that owned by the city of Chesapeake, but the game department sets the regulations for what fishermen can or cannot keep.

Dunnavant said understanding the regulations is just part of the overall education process for novice anglers. Dixon said her department does what it can to help facilitate that education.

"We have a lot of different education programs around the state — some tailored for children, some tailored for women and families. There are great opportunities for people to learn from great, patient instructors," she said.